Tokugen Numataka lit his fourth cigar and kept pacing. He snatched up his phone and buzzed the main switchboard.
“Any word yet on that phone number?” he demanded before the operator could speak.
“Nothing yet, sir. It’s taking a bit longer than expected-it came from a cellular.”
A cellular, Numataka mused. Figures. Fortunately for the Japanese economy, the Americans had an insatiable appetite for electronic gadgets.
“The boosting station,” the operator added, “is in the 202 area code. But we have no number yet.”
“202? Where’s that?” Where in the vast American expanse is this mysterious North Dakota hiding?
“Somewhere near Washington, D. C., sir.”
Numataka arched his eyebrows. “Call me as soon as you have a number.”
Susan Fletcher stumbled across the darkened Crypto floor toward Strathmore’s catwalk. The commander’s office was as far from Hale as Susan could get inside the locked complex.
When Susan reached the top of the catwalk stairs, she found the commander’s door hanging loosely, the electronic lock rendered ineffective by the power outage. She barged in.
“Commander?” The only light inside was the glow of Strathmore’s computer monitors. “Commander!” she called once again. “Commander!”
Susan suddenly remembered that the commander was in the Sys-Sec lab. She turned circles in his empty office, the panic of her ordeal with Hale still in her blood. She had to get out of Crypto. Digital Fortress or no Digital Fortress, it was time to act-time to abort the TRANSLTR run and escape. She eyed Strathmore’s glowing monitors then dashed to his desk. She fumbled with his keypad. Abort TRANSLTR! The task was simple now that she was on an authorized terminal. Susan called up the proper command window and typed:
Her finger hovered momentarily over the ENTER key.
“Susan!” a voice barked from the doorway. Susan wheeled scared, fearing it was Hale. But it was not, it was Strathmore. He stood, pale and eerie in the electronic glow, his chest heaving. “What the hell’s going on!”
“Com… mander!” Susan gasped. “Hale’s in Node 3! He just attacked me!”
“What? Impossible! Hale’s locked down in-”
“No, he’s not! He’s loose! We need security inhere now! I’m aborting TRANSLTR!” Susan reached for the keypad.
“DON’T TOUCH THAT!” Strathmore lunged for the terminal and pulled Susan’s hands away.
Susan recoiled, stunned. She stared at the commander and for the second time that day did not recognize him. Susan felt suddenly alone.
Strathmore saw the blood on Susan’s shirt and immediately regretted his outburst. “Jesus, Susan. Are you okay?”
She didn’t respond.
He wished he hadn’t jumped on her unnecessarily. His nerves were frayed. He was juggling too much. There were things on his mind-things Susan Fletcher did not know about-things he had not told her and prayed he’d never have to.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly. “Tell me what happened.”
She turned away. “It doesn’t matter. The blood’s not mine. Just get me out of here.”
“Are you hurt?” Strathmore put a hand on her shoulder. Susan recoiled. He dropped his hand and looked away. When he looked back at Susan’s face, she seemed to be staring over his shoulder at something on the wall.
There, in the darkness, a small keypad glowed full force. Strathmore followed her gaze and frowned. He’d hoped Susan wouldn’t notice the glowing control panel. The illuminated keypad controlled his private elevator. Strathmore and his high-powered guests used it to come and go from Crypto without advertising the fact to the rest of the staff. The personal lift dropped down fifty feet below the Crypto dome and then moved laterally 109 yards through a reinforced underground tunnel to the sublevels of the main NSA complex. The elevator connecting Crypto to the NSA was powered from the main complex; it was on-line despite Crypto’s power outage.
Strathmore had known all along it was on-line, but even as Susan had been pounding on the main exit downstairs, he hadn’t mentioned it. He could not afford to let Susan out-not yet. He wondered how much he’d have to tell her to make her want to stay.
Susan pushed past Strathmore and raced to the back wall. She jabbed furiously at the illuminated buttons.
“Please,” she begged. But the door did not open.
“Susan,” Strathmore said quietly. “The lift takes a password.”
“A password?” she repeated angrily. She glared at the controls. Below the main keypad was a second keypad-a smaller one, with tiny buttons. Each button was marked with a letter of the alphabet. Susan wheeled to him. “What is the password!” she demanded.
Strathmore thought a moment and sighed heavily. “Susan, have a seat.”
Susan looked as if she could hardly believe her ears.
“Have a seat,” the commander repeated, his voice firm.
“Let me out!” Susan shot an uneasy glance toward the commander’s open office door.
Strathmore eyed the panicked Susan Fletcher. Calmly he moved to his office door. He stepped out onto the landing and peered into the darkness. Hale was nowhere to be seen. The commander stepped back inside and pulled the door shut. Then he propped a chair in front to keep it closed, went to his desk, and removed something from a drawer. In the pale glow of the monitors Susan saw what he was holding. Her face went pale. It was a gun.
Strathmore pulled two chairs into the middle of the room. He rotated them to face the closed office door. Then he sat. He lifted the glittering Beretta semi-automatic and aimed steadily at the slightly open door. After a moment he laid the gun back in his lap.
He spoke solemnly. “Susan, we’re safe here. We need to talk. If Greg Hale comes through that door…” He let it hang.
Susan was speechless.
Strathmore gazed at her in the dim light of his office. He patted the seat beside him. “Susan, sit. I have something to tell you.” She did not move. “When I’m done, “he said, “I’ll give you the password to the elevator. You can decide whether to leave or not.”
There was a long silence. In a daze, Susan moved across the office and sat next to Strathmore.
“Susan,” he began, “I haven’t been entirely honest with you.”
David Becker felt as if his face had been doused in turpentine and ignited. He rolled over on the floor and squinted through bleary tunnel vision at the girl halfway to the revolving doors. She was running in short, terrified bursts, dragging her duffel behind her across the tile. Becker tried to pull himself to his feet, but he could not. He was blinded by red-hot fire. She can’t get away!
He tried to call out, but there was no air in his lungs, only a sickening pain. “No!” He coughed. The sound barely left his lips.
Becker knew the second she went through the door, she would disappear forever. He tried to call out again, but his throat was searing.
The girl had almost reached the revolving door. Becker staggered to his feet, gasping for breath. He stumbled after her. The girl dashed into the first compartment of the revolving door, dragging her duffel behind her. Twenty yards back, Becker was staggering blindly toward the door.
“Wait!” He gasped. “Wait!”
The girl pushed furiously on the inside of the door. The door began to rotate, but then it jammed. The blonde wheeled in terror and saw her duffel snagged in the opening. She knelt and pulled furiously to free it.
Becker fixed his bleary vision on the fabric protruding through the door. As he dove, the red corner of nylon protruding from the crack was all he could see. He flew toward it, arms outstretched.
As David Becker fell toward the door, his hands only inches away, the fabric slipped into the crack and disappeared. His fingers clutched empty air as the door lurched into motion. The girl and the duffel tumbled into the street outside.
“Megan!” Becker wailed as hit the floor. White-hot needles shot through the back of his eye sockets. His vision tunneled to nothing, and a new wave of nausea rolled in. His own voice echoed in the blackness. Megan!
David Becker wasn’t sure how long he’d been lying there before he became aware of the hum of fluorescent bulbs overhead. Everything else was still. Through the silence came a voice. Someone was calling. He tried to lift his head off the floor. The world was cockeyed, watery. Again the voice. He squinted down the concourse and saw a figure twenty yards away.
Becker recognized the voice. It was the girl. She was standing at another entrance farther down the concourse, clutching her duffel to her chest. She looked more frightened now than she had before.
“Mister?” she asked, her voice trembling. “I never told you my name. How come you know my name?”
Director Leland Fontaine was a mountain of a man, sixty-three years old, with a close-cropped military haircut and a rigid demeanor. His jet-black eyes were like coal when he was irritated, which was almost always. He’d risen through the ranks of the NSA through hard work, good planning, and the well-earned respect of his predecessors. He was the first African American director of the National Security Agency, but nobody ever mentioned the distinction; Fontaine’s politics were decidedly color-blind, and his staff wisely followed suit.
Fontaine had kept Midge and Brinkerhoff standing as he went through the silent ritual of making himself a mug of Guatemalan java. Then he’d settled at his desk, left them standing, and questioned them like schoolchildren in the principal’s office.
Midge did the talking-explaining the unusual series of events that led them to violate the sanctity of Fontaine’s office.
“A virus?” the director asked coldly. “You two think we’ve got a virus?”
“Yes, sir,” Midge snapped.
“Because Strathmore bypassed Gauntlet?” Fontaine eyed the printout in front of him.
“Yes,” she said. “And there’s a file that hasn’t broken in over twenty hours!”
Fontaine frowned. “Or so your data says.”
Midge was about to protest, but she held her tongue. Instead she went for the throat. “There’s a blackout in Crypto.”
Fontaine looked up, apparently surprised.
Midge confirmed with a curt nod. “All power’s down. Jabba thought maybe-”
“You called Jabba?”
“Yes, sir, I-”
“Jabba?” Fontaine stood up, furious. “Why the hell didn’t you call Strathmore?”
“We did!” Midge defended. “He said everything was fine.”
Fontaine stood, his chest heaving. “Then we have no reason to doubt him.” There was closure in his voice. He took a sip of coffee. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”
Midge’s jaw dropped. “I beg your pardon?”
Brinkerhoff was already headed for the door, but Midge was cemented in place.
“I said good night, Ms. Milken,” Fontaine repeated. “You are excused.”
“But-but sir,” she stammered, “I… I have to protest. I think-”
“You protest?” the director demanded. He set down his coffee. “I protest! I protest to your presence in my office. I protest to your insinuations that the deputy director of this agency is lying. I protest-”
“We have a virus, sir! My instincts tell me-”
“Well, your instincts are wrong, Ms. Milken! For once, they’re wrong!”
Midge stood fast. “But, sir! Commander Strathmore bypassed Gauntlet!”
Fontaine strode toward her, barely controlling his anger. “That is his prerogative! I pay you to watch analysts and service employees-not spy on the deputy director! If it weren’t for him we’d still be breaking codes with pencil and paper! Now leave me!” He turned to Brinkerhoff, who stood in the doorway colorless and trembling. “Both of you.”
“With all due respect, sir,” Midge said. “I’d like to recommend we send a Sys-Sec team to Crypto just to ensure-”
“We will do no such thing!”
After a tense beat, Midge nodded. “Very well. Goodnight.” She turned and left. As she passed, Brinkerhoff could see in her eyes that she had no intention of letting this rest-not until her intuition was satisfied.
Brinkerhoff gazed across the room at his boss, massive and seething behind his desk. This was not the director he knew. The director he knew was a stickler for detail, for neatly tied packages. He always encouraged his staff to examine and clarify any inconsistencies in daily procedure, no matter how minute. And yet here he was, asking them to turn their backs on a very bizarre series of coincidences.
The director was obviously hiding something, but Brinkerhoff was paid to assist, not to question. Fontaine had proven over and over that he had everyone’s best interests at heart; if assisting him now meant turning a blind eye, then so be it. Unfortunately, Midge was paid to question, and Brinkerhoff feared she was headed for Crypto to do just that.
Time to get out the resumes, Brinkerhoff thought as he turned to the door.
“Chad!” Fontaine barked, from behind him. Fontaine had seen the look in Midge’s eyes when she left. “Don’t let her out of this suite.”
Brinkerhoff nodded and hustled after Midge.
Fontaine sighed and put his head in his hands. His sable eyes were heavy. It had been a long, unexpected trip home. The past month had been one of great anticipation for Leland Fontaine. There were things happening right now at the NSA that would change history, and ironically, Director Fontaine had found out about them only by chance.
Three months ago, Fontaine had gotten news that Commander Strathmore’s wife was leaving him. He’d also heard reports that Strathmore was working absurd hours and seemed about to crack under the pressure. Despite differences of opinion with Strathmore on many issues, Fontaine had always held his deputy director in the highest esteem; Strathmore was a brilliant man, maybe the best the NSA had. At the same time, ever since the Skipjack fiasco, Strathmore had been under tremendous stress. It made Fontaine uneasy; the commander held a lot of keys around the NSA-and Fontaine had an agency to protect.
Fontaine needed someone to keep tabs on the wavering Strathmore and make sure he was 100 percent-but it was not that simple. Strathmore was a proud and powerful man; Fontaine needed a way to check up on the commander without undermining his confidence or authority.
Fontaine decided, out of respect for Strathmore, to do the job himself. He had an invisible tap installed on Commander Strathmore’s Crypto account-his E-mail, his interoffice correspondence, his brainstorms, all of it. If Strathmore was going to crack, the director would see warning signs in his work. But instead of signs of a breakdown, Fontaine uncovered the ground work for one of the most incredible intelligence schemes he’d ever encountered. It was no wonder Strathmore was busting his ass; if he could pull this plan off, it would make up for the Skipjack fiasco a hundred times over.
Fontaine had concluded Strathmore was fine, working at 110 percent-as sly, smart, and patriotic as ever. The best thing the director could do would be to stand clear and watch the commander work his magic. Strathmore had devised a plan… a plan Fontaine had no intention of interrupting.
Strathmore fingered the Berretta in his lap. Even with the rage boiling in his blood, he was programmed to think clearly. The fact that Greg Hale had dared lay a finger on Susan Fletcher sickened him, but the fact that it was his own fault made him even sicker; Susan going into Node 3 had been his idea. Strathmore knew enough to compartmentalize his emotion-it could in no way affect his handling of Digital Fortress. He was the deputy director of the National Security Agency. And today his job was more critical than it had ever been.
Strathmore slowed his breathing. “Susan.” His voice was efficient and unclouded. “Did you delete Hale’s E-mail?”
“No,” she said, confused.
“Do you have the pass-key?”
She shook her head.
Strathmore frowned, chewing his lip. His mind was racing. He had a dilemma. He could easily enter his elevator password, and Susan would be gone. But he needed her there. He needed her help to find Hale’s pass-key. Strathmore hadn’t told her yet, but finding that pass-key was far more than a matter of academic interest-it was an absolute necessity. Strathmore suspected he could run Susan’s nonconformity search and find the pass-key himself, but he’d already encountered problems running her tracer. He was not about to risk it again.
“Susan.” He sighed resolutely. “I’d like you to help me find Hale’s pass-key.”
“What!” Susan stood up, her eyes wild.
Strathmore fought off the urge to stand along with her. He knew a lot about negotiating-the position of power was always seated. He hoped she would follow suit. She did not.
“Susan, sit down.”
She ignored him.
“Sit down.” It was an order.
Susan remained standing. “Commander, if you’ve still got some burning desire to check out Tankado’s algorithm, you can do it alone. I want out.”
Strathmore hung his head and took a deep breath. It was clear she would need an explanation. She deserves one, he thought. Strathmore made his decision-Susan Fletcher would hear it all. He prayed he wasn’t making a mistake.
“Susan,” he began, “it wasn’t supposed to come to this.” He ran his hand across his scalp. “There are some things I haven’t told you. Sometimes a man in my position…” The commander wavered as if making a painful confession. “Sometimes a man in my position is forced to lie to the people he loves. Today was one of those days.” He eyed her sadly. “What I’m about to tell you, I never planned to have to say… to you… or to anyone.”
Susan felt a chill. The commander had a deadly serious look on his face. There was obviously some aspect of his agenda to which she was not privy. Susan sat down.
There was a long pause as Strathmore stared at the ceiling, gathering his thoughts. “Susan,” he finally said, his voice frail. “I have no family.” He returned his gaze to her. “I have no marriage to speak of. My life has been my love for this country. My life has been my work here at the NSA.”
Susan listened in silence.
“As you may have guessed,” he continued, “I planned to retire soon. But I wanted to retire with pride. I wanted to retire knowing that I’d truly made a difference.”
“But you have made a difference,” Susan heard herself say. “You built TRANSLTR.”
Strathmore didn’t seem to hear. “Over the past few years, our work here at the NSA has gotten harder and harder. We’ve faced enemies I never imagined would challenge us. I’m talking about our own citizens. The lawyers, the civil rights fanatics, the EFF-they’ve all played a part, but it’s more than that. It’s the people. They’ve lost faith. They’ve become paranoid. They suddenly see us as the enemy. People like you and me, people who truly have the nation’s best interests at heart, we find ourselves having to fight for our right to serve our country. We’re no longer peacekeepers. We’re eavesdroppers, peeping Toms, violators of people’s rights.” Strathmore heaved a sigh. “Unfortunately, there are naive people in the world, people who can’t imagine the horrors they’d face if we didn’t intervene. I truly believe it’s up to us to save them from their own ignorance.”
Susan waited for his point.
The commander stared wearily at the floor and then looked up. “Susan, hear me out,” he said, smiling tenderly at her. “You’ll want to stop me, but hear me out. I’ve been decrypting Tankado’s E-mail for about two months now. As you can imagine, I was shocked when I first read his messages to North Dakota about an unbreakable algorithm called Digital Fortress. I didn’t believe it was possible. But every time I intercepted anew message, Tankado sounded more and more convincing. When I read that he’d used mutation strings to write a rotating key-code, I realized he was light-years ahead of us; it was an approach no one here had never tried.”
“Why would we?” Susan asked. “It barely makes sense.”
Strathmore stood up and started pacing, keeping one eye on the door. “A few weeks ago, when I heard about the Digital Fortress auction, I finally accepted the fact that Tankado was serious. I knew if he sold his algorithm to a Japanese software company, we were sunk, so I tried to think of any way I could stop him. I considered having him killed, but with all the publicity surrounding the algorithm and all his recent claims about TRANSLTR, we would be prime suspects. That’s when it dawned on me.” He turned to Susan. “I realized that Digital Fortress should not be stopped.”
Susan stared at him, apparently lost.
Strathmore went on. “I suddenly saw Digital Fortress as the opportunity of a lifetime. It hit me that with a few changes, Digital Fortress could work for us instead of against us.”
Susan had never heard anything so absurd. Digital Fortress was an unbreakable algorithm; it would destroy them.
“If,” Strathmore continued, “if I could just make a small modification in the algorithm… before it was released…” He gave her a cunning glint of the eye.
It took only an instant.
Strathmore saw the amazement register in Susan’s eyes. He excitedly explained his plan. “If I could get the pass-key, I could unlock our copy of Digital Fortress and insert a modification.”
“A back door,” Susan said, forgetting the Commander had ever lied to her. She felt a surge of anticipation. “Just like Skipjack.”
Strathmore nodded. “Then we could replace Tankado’s give-away file on the Internet with our altered version. Because Digital Fortress is a Japanese algorithm, no one will ever suspect the NSA had any part in it. All we have to do is make the switch.”
Susan realized the plan was beyond ingenious. It was pure… Strathmore. He planned to facilitate the release of an algorithm the NSA could break!
“Full access,” Strathmore said. “Digital Fortress will become the encryption standard overnight.”
“Overnight?” Susan said. “How do you figure that? Even if Digital Fortress becomes available everywhere for free, most computer users will stick with their old algorithms for convenience. Why would they switch to Digital Fortress?”
Strathmore smiled. “Simple. We have a security leak. The whole world finds out about TRANSLTR.”
Susan’s jaw dropped.
“Quite simply, Susan, we let the truth hit the street. We tell the world that the NSA has a computer that can break every algorithm except Digital Fortress.”
Susan was amazed. “So everyone jumps ship to Digital Fortress… not knowing we can break it!”
Strathmore nodded. “Exactly.” There was a long silence. “I’m sorry I lied to you. Trying to rewrite Digital Fortress is a pretty big play, I didn’t want you involved.”
“I… understand,” she replied slowly, still reeling from the brilliance of it all. “You’re not a bad liar.”
Strathmore chuckled. “Years of practice. Lying was the only way to keep you out of the loop.”
Susan nodded. “And how big a loop is it?”
“You’re looking at it.”
Susan smiled for the first time in an hour. “I was afraid you’d say that.”
He shrugged. “Once Digital Fortress is in place, I’ll brief the director.”
Susan was impressed. Strathmore’s plan was a global intelligence coup the magnitude of which had never before been imagined. And he’d attempted it single-handedly. It looked like he might pull it off too. The pass-key was downstairs. Tankado was dead. Tankado’s partner had been located.
Tankado is dead. That seemed very convenient. She thought of all the lies that Strathmore had told her and felt a sudden chill. She looked uneasily at the commander. “Did you kill Ensei Tankado?”
Strathmore looked surprised. He shook his head. “Of course not. There was no need to kill Tankado. In fact, I’d prefer he were alive. His death could cast suspicion on Digital Fortress. I wanted this switch to go as smoothly and inconspicuously as possible. The original plan was to make the switch and let Tankado sell his key.”
Susan had to admit it made sense. Tankado would have no reason to suspect the algorithm on the Internet was not the original. Nobody had access to it except himself and North Dakota. Unless Tankado went back and studied the programming after it was released, he’d never know about the back door. He’d slaved over Digital Fortress for long enough that he’d probably never want to see the programming again.
Susan let it all soak in. She suddenly understood the commander’s need for privacy in Crypto. The task at hand was time-consuming and delicate-writing a concealed back door in a complex algorithm and making an undetected Internet switch. Concealment was of paramount importance. The simple suggestion that Digital Fortress was tainted could ruin the commander’s plan.
Only now did she fully grasp why he had decided to let TRANSLTR keep running. If Digital Fortress is going to be the NSA’s new baby, Strathmore wanted to be sure it was unbreakable!
“Still want out?” he asked.
Susan looked up. Somehow sitting there in the dark with the great Trevor Strathmore, her fears were swept away. Rewriting Digital Fortress was a chance to make history-a chance to do incredible good-and Strathmore could use her help. Susan forced a reluctant smile. “What’s our next move?”
Strathmore beamed. He reached over and put a hand on her shoulder. “Thanks.” He smiled and then got down to business. “We’ll go downstairs together.” He held up his Berretta. “You’ll search Hale’s terminal. I’ll cover you.”
Susan bristled at the thought of going downstairs. “Can’t we wait for David to call with Tankado’s copy?”
Strathmore shook his head. “The sooner we make the switch, the better. We have no guarantees that David will even find the other copy. If by some fluke the ring falls into the wrong hands over there, I’d prefer we’d already made the algorithm switch. That way, whoever ends up with the key will download our version of the algorithm.” Strathmore fingered his gun and stood. “We need to go for Hale’s key.”
Susan fell silent. The commander had a point. They needed Hale’s pass-key. And they needed it now.
When Susan stood, her legs were jittery. She wished she’d hit Hale harder. She eyed Strathmore’s weapon and suddenly felt queasy. “You’d actually shoot Greg Hale?”
“No.” Strathmore frowned, striding to the door. “But let’s hope he doesn’t know that.”